June 11, 2013

Summer Days, Starry Nights

by Vikki VanSickle
Scholastic Canada
219 pp.
Ages 10-14
June 2013

What a perfect time for Vikki VanSickle to launch her newest book, Summer Days, Starry Nights which takes middle grade readers to the lake, cabins and beach of Sandy Shores, the Starr family summer resort outside of Orillia, Ontario. The narrator of this 1962 coming-of-age story is the middle Starr child, Reenie, 13, who adores her home, the resort, but still doesn’t always feel like she belongs.  After all, her six-year-old sister, Scarlett, is so much like their mother, affectionately called Mimi, who likes pretty things and getting attention. Her brother Bo is 16 and, although he is obsessed with music and his band, the Wide Mouth Bass, he is still more likely to be asked to do work with his dad around the resort and will probably inherit it. But Reenie loves Sandy Shores. She can’t think of a better place to live or grow up.

So it’s perplexing to Reenie that Mimi becomes so melancholy about her past as a dancer and actress before she married and moved to the boondocks. And more surprising that Dad allows Mimi to implement a variety of ideas she has to bring a little class and hopefully more guests to the resort. In the summer of 1962, her idea is to bring in some entertainment and dancing, asking Gwendolyn, the daughter of her friend Grace Cates, to work for them. Gwen, almost 18, has grown up drastically from the lovely, ethereal girl attending ballet school who Reenie remembers; now she’s brash and more interested in singing than dance, especially not ballet, spending lots of time alone in her room when not teaching.

Reenie is determined to reacquaint herself with Gwen, hanging around her, taking dance lessons, talking about being a teenager. So it's not surprising that Reenie notices that, after Gwen gets letters from someone whose name begins with J or G, she is more grumpy and that there are times when it’s obvious she’s been crying. When Reenie is working in the office and answers a call from a rock and roller called Johnny Skins, looking to speak with Gwen, Reenie begins to hatch a plan that would bring some much-needed attention to Sandy Shores and lift her mother's mood; give her brother a chance to showcase his band and his music; and take away Gwen's blahs.  Reenie is convinced that she can pull together a special concert/dance and amaze everyone, especially Gwen, with a surprise appearance by Johnny Skins. But even plans laid upon the best of intentions will go awry when secrets are being kept by everyone.

The plot of Summer Days, Starry Nights draws attention to the sparkling promise of summer: new relationships, freedom, opportunities, spending time outdoors. But sometimes, like stars, that promise can be overwhelming, brighter than justified, blinding to the eyes. When the stars align, however, they paint a picture of a fragile family, held together by shimmering connections that waver, weakening and strengthening with different circumstances. With Gwen added to the big picture, all the Starrs begin to see themselves relative to her, moving within her pull, positive or negative, rather than as a stable system irrespective of her. But those pesky secrets shake the foundation of the Starrs forcing them to re-examine their ideas about themselves and each other so that they may rebuild those connections.

Characteristically, Vikki VanSickle pens a story that is like a classic rock-and-roll song: there is a familiarity to its melody, of a family working together, with harmonies and some dissonance (especially feared in the 1950s and 1960s music!) but together it is a pleasing sound that resonates with all.  Summer Days, Starry Nights is sure to be a summer hit on the youngCanLit charts.

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